By Ali Moosavi.
The media have been so preoccupied with whether or not Idris Elba will become the next James Bond that somehow his first venture into directing, Yardie, has been kept largely under the radar. Yardie is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Victor Headley.
Elba opens the film in rural Jamaica in the early seventies. This section of the film is somewhat reminiscent of Beasts of No Nation (Cary Fukunaga, 2015), in which Elba starred. In both films we have the notion of “Boy Soldiers.” While in Beasts this literally referred to child soldiers, in Yardie the term is used for young boys who are promoted to be members of various Jamaican crime gangs. One such boy is Dennis, or D (Aml Ameen). His elder brother is a DJ with aspirations to bring peace between the rival gangs, and in one such attempt, he is shot dead by another boy soldier. One of the crime lords, King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), takes D under his wings as one of his boy soldiers. However, D is obsessed with finding his brother’s murderer. Like Hamlet seeing the ghost of his murdered father, D keeps seeing the ghost of his brother throughout the film. This obsession turns D to a wild, uncontrollable man, bent on revenge. King Fox therefore ships him to London, where D’s wife and daughter have been living.
The second part of the film takes place in the early eighties in the council estates of London’s Hackney Borough (where, incidentally, Elba grew up). The move to London is also helpful to Elba, as remaining in Jamaica would have inevitably led to unfair comparisons between Yardie and the unforgettable The Harder They Come (Perry Henzell, 1972). From here on, though, the film’s tone and intentions become uncertain. Initially it looks as though it may be a Jamaican take on Scarface, when D takes on a white Jamaican gang boss n London (Stephen Graham, in a deliciously over the top performance). Wisely, Elba refrains from following this well-trodden path. Then another, rather more promising scenario develops. When D helps some young kids who are trying to become DJs by getting them some drug money, introducing them to reggae music, and even doing some singing, one feels that perhaps the film will follow a parallel path between the rise of Jamaican crime gangs and popularity of Jamaican music in UK. But this notion is also tossed aside, and the main remaining theme of the film becomes D’s struggle to keep his young family together while finding his brother’s killer. Also, by switching from the warm and lush colours of Jamaica to the cold, grainy colours of London’s council estates, Elba drives home another one of the film’s themes, which is the loss of innocence when moving from a rural home to a large, foreign city (cinematography is by John Conroy, who had worked with Elba on the series Luther [2010- ]). Every time the film moves toward grittiness and graphic violence, say like This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006), Elba pulls back and Yardie retains a rather soft centre. It is as though Elba does not want to spoil the picture that he has built of the London of his childhood.
Notwithstanding the script’s uncertainties, Yardie is an impressive directing debut for Idris Elba. He has achieved an admirable balance between high tension in the scenes where D is confronting the various gangs, and a much needed humourous relief in some of the other scenes. One of the pluses is Jamaican music, which Elba uses throughout. Let’s hope that unlike two other British actors who have not gone behind the cameras again after critically successful debuts – Gary Oldman with Nil By Mouth (1997) and Tim Roth with War Zone (1999) – Elba finds the time, and a better script, to follow on the promise of Yardie.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).